I have a confession to make: despite all my effusive posts about my cat, I’m a dog person at heart. I read an article a few years back where the author wrote about the ‘dog of their life.’ The idea was that you could have many dogs during your lifetime, but there’d be one that captured your heart in a way that no other dog would, the dog that would greet you in Heaven by bounding up to you with a stick and maniacally wagging its tail – the dog of your life.
For me, that dog was a cattle dog. Well, to be technical, a cattle dog crossed with a kelpie, dingo and various other breeds – but in spirit, essentially a cattle dog. I’ve only ever had one dog, which may make that sentiment ring a little hollow to some, but even if I’d had a flotilla of Poodles, Alsatians, Greyhounds and Daschunds – more dogs than you could poke a stick at – or perhaps throw a stick to – I’d still say the same thing: cattle dogs are the breed for me.
A few days ago I went into a bookstore I used to work in. To avoid the hassle of possible lawsuits, let’s just refer to it by a made-up name for now – say, ‘Dyemox’ (a stroke of genius – no-one will ever see through that…) Anyway, despite the advent of kindles and ebooks, very little had changed there – in particular, it was still impossible to find a staff member anywhere. I wandered around for about ten minutes before concluding the shop was entirely unmanned and shoplifting an entire shelf of Ian McKewan’s latest comic novel. (This is an exaggeration: I took no more than half a shelf, maximum, and would have donated them to the poor, but they refused to take them on the grounds that they were suffering enough already.)
To give you some idea of what the store is like, it has three levels and is divided into departments with ‘specialists’ working in each section. For nearly two years, I was the children’s books specialist and shared a floor with Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Music and Games. We were on the lower ground floor, accessed by a ‘down’ escalator. The corresponding ‘up’ escalator was positioned directly behind the down one, right next to the register. (Don’t worry – I’ll get back to the cattle dogs eventually.) A great portion of our workday consisted of helping customers find this up escalator. You’d come across them in the oddest places – stumbling about among the ‘Captain Underpants’ display or vainly banging on the walls in the Tolkein section, frantically trying to find their way back to the ground floor and sunlight. Sometimes they’d been there for hours. Once I found one huddled under a dumpbin with cobwebs in his beard. Our favourite joke was to tell them that there was no up escalator, that they had to live down there forever. Then we’d laugh ghoulishly. We stopped that after the third suicide though.
When I worked there, there was something of an upstairs-downstairs mentality operating. The management, who worked in an office in the sky and had no idea what the daily reality of the store was like, would waltz down at inconvenient times and gaily announce that they’d like you to try arranging the books by the author’s star sign rather than their surname, or to move the entire children’s section 40cm to the left. It was provoking to say the least.
Our uniform didn’t help things either. Back then, it consisted of navy blue pants or skirt and a shapeless polyester blouse with a pattern of flying books – the type of thing a postal worker contemplating a new career in wizardry might wear. This uniform was uniformly despised by the staff. Any customer foolish enough to approach a staff member with the words, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’ was likely to be greeted with a deadpan stare and ‘No, I wear this stupid shirt by choice.’ (They’ve changed this uniform since I’ve left, replacing the flying books with a fetching chambray – yes, chambray – shirt, harking back to the good old days on the ranch. Fans of ‘Degrassi Junior High’ or ‘Full House’ will be familiar with the look. Apparently, it is much more stylish and ‘modern’ then the old shirt was. Clearly, there was a good twenty years or so between deciding upon the new uniform and actually implementing it.)
Other than the management and uniform factor, working in a bookshop was beset with numerous small irritations. In particular, there was nothing more annoying than when customers would enthusiastically exclaim, ‘I’d love to work in a bookshop!’ or ‘You must have the best job in the world!’ They imagined you spent all day curled up behind the counter reading. Oh yes, at times you’d rouse yourself to ring up a sale on one of those old-fashioned registers which ding when the cash-drawer slides open. And sometimes you might have to actually step out onto the shopfloor, leaving the bookshop cat to mind the register. You might have to do a spot of cleaning for instance, humming away merrily while you daintily skimmed the shelf-tops with one of those delightful feather-dusters favoured by French maids. Or you might have to put away new stock, perusing each title at leisure before finding a space for it on the shelf (which was never packed so tightly you had to lay books horizontally or two-deep to make room for them.)
On very rare occasions, you might have to sell books to customers. This wasn’t selling in the crass, commercial sense of the word though – more like having a very long conversation about capital-L-‘Literature’ with someone who loved it as much as you did and was willing to buy everything you recommended. These events were not usual though: mostly you just read, which is how you managed to work your way through every single book in the entire store. (Customers in real life were always astonished and faintly disapproving if you admitted that you hadn’t actually read the particular book they were considering buying: ‘What, you work in a bookstore and you haven’t read ‘A Bedouin’s Guide to Plastic Manufacturing During the Third Reich’? ’)
Anyway, as much as I loved my job (in a non-pecuniary sense at least), this fantasy of theirs was way off the mark. A typical day went more like this: frantically ringing up sales on the register while simultaneously offering customer loyalty cards and gift wrapping; creating an arresting window display comprised solely of 7000 copies of the latest Harry Potter, a pointed felt hat, and a pathetic fake wand; seeing sales reps; moving stock from the warehouse to the shop floor; shelving new stock; returning old stock; analysing a year’s worth of sales reports and coming up with ‘new and innovative’ ways to boost profit margins; cleaning; apprehending shoplifters; supervising a dozen screaming brats whose parents had elected to dump them in a bookstore for 8 hours rather than pursuing more conventional child-minding arrangements; assembling complicated cardboard dumpbins designed for IKEA aficionados and helping customers track down the book their six year old daughter ordered them to bring home which featured a dog, had been published some time in the last century and may or may not have had a yellow cover. It was draining to say the least, and particularly during peak trading hours, I often wished for another staff member to help shoulder the load.
And so it was born – a proposal written largely in jest – a grand scheme to increase staff presence on the shop floor at very little cost. My co-workers enjoyed it (one even provided the accompanying illustrations.) I don’t think it ever reached the upper echelons of management though – those who reside in the clouds and quaff mead and timesheets for nourishment…
A modest proposal addressing staffing issues on the lower ground (with a few amendments)
I propose that a cattle dog be hired to work on the lower ground floor. Ideally, he should be a blue cattle dog of 2 to 3 years of age. He should be of sound mind and sensible disposition. As he will be dealing with members of the public, he should be vaccinated against all major canine illnesses. He should also be accustomed to working with small children, or, in the absence of such experience, with sheep or cattle. Such an animal could be procured from the RSPCA or local pound at very little expense.
For maximum efficiency, he should be named either Snapper or Jock, though management may wish to give him a name beginning with ‘D’ for alliterative purposes (Those astute readers who have cunningly deduced that the store-name began with a “D’ should be giving themselves a little pat on the back of congratulations at this point and faxing off their enrolment form to Mensa, should they not already be a member. On that same note, any Sydney-sider who has not yet worked out the store I’m writing about should give up any hope of ever, ever joining Mensa. If they haven’t yet graduated from highschool, they shouldn’t bank on that happening either. As for banks themselves – keep well away from them. They involve big numbers and filling out forms and lots of really hard stuff. But back to my plan…)
- Cattle dogs are known to be reliable, hardworking and quick to learn.
- Team players – take very few sick days.
- Extremely cost effective – the cattle dog could be paid minimum wage, or given the absence of an award governing canine working conditions in retail environments, could even be persuaded to work in exchange for food (perhaps walks or a bout of tug-o-war- could be offered in lieu of weekends and public holidays?)
- The cattle dog could be used to convey stock from the warehouse to the floor, monitor unsupervised children, and control register queues. He could also conduct customers to the ‘up’ escalator, thereby reducing the workload of other staff members by up to 93%. With sufficient training, the cattle dog could be taught to pull returns and shelve stock on the bottom three shelves. He could also take on a minor security role, escorting staff to the bank and deterring drug traffickers.
- When the shop is closed, he could be employed as a watch dog. He would also be effective in reducing the rodent population in the warehouse (though this role would perhaps be better suited to a Jack Russell or similar breed).
- Cattle dog would not impede linear footage. (Management were very big on linear footage. Every time you came up with a new idea, they’d be wanting to know how it would impact on linear footage. I’m still not sure what it is exactly.)
- Could be used as a marketing device to attract extra traffic to the lower ground floor.
- Franchising opportunities – local stores could pay a small annual fee in exchange for their own cattle dog. Perhaps a small portion of revenue raised could go to the RSPCA or to tsunami cattle dog victims?
- Could assist in crowd control at the release of the next Stephanie Meyer (herding experience would be particularly useful in this regard.)
- May have difficulty operating a register.
- Inferior product knowledge (in a recent ABS survey 8 out of 10 cattle dogs were unable to name the latest Booker Prize winner. No respondents had read The Da Vinci Code).
- Poor data entry skills.
- May bite customers.